Three Survival Strategies of the Anxiety Prone
Research10 published in 2013 attempts to explain the neurobiology of this “psychological allergy” to uncertainty. A number of different brain processes are likely involved, including emotional regulation, along with threat and safety detection. When uncertainty arises, your brain looks for environmental clues that it, through experience, associates with threat or safety. When you’re in an ambiguous situation where your brain cannot detect any clear safety or threat cues, it decides thateverything is a threat.
Needless to say, this can have a significant impact on your health as anxiety evokes the same “fight or flight or freeze” response as stress, meaning it triggers a flood of stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol that help you respond in an emergency.
“Threat and safety detection has been linked to the amygdala, and emotion regulation seems to be the domain of the prefrontal cortex,” The Atlantic notes, adding “Grupe also thinks the insula could play a role in processing information about the body and its environment to help create internal, subjective feelings.” Once the level of uncertainty rises and becomes unbearable, the anxiety-prone person will typically respond in one of two ways: approach, or avoidance. People in avoidance mode usually want others to tell them what to do, no matter how inappropriate that might be. There is a third option though.
As explained in the featured article:
“If an aversion to uncertainty starts to negatively affect someone’s life…it can help to actively practice a third strategy: just living with it. Dugas and his colleagues have developed a type of cognitive behavioral therapy based on this concept that has proved to be very effective for patients with GAD. Some people are more prone to the approach strategy, some to avoidance, some are a bit of both in different situations…
For a businesswoman who can’t stop checking the stock market, Dugas says he might have her start checking just once a day, then every other day, and so on. For parents who worry over the uncertainty of their kids’ grades, he’d have them slowly back off double-checking homework. ‘The goal is always the same,’ Dugas says. ‘To get them to experience uncertainty and learn ‘this isn’t fun, but I can tolerate this.’’”
Energy Psychology Can Also Help Ease Anxiety
While you can’t eliminate anxiety from your life entirely, energy psychology tools such as the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), demonstrated in the video above, can help you address anxiety and panic attacks by correcting the bioelectrical short-circuiting that can happen when anxiety becomes chronic.11 It’s normal to feel anxiety with a stressful event, such as before public speaking or in anticipation of a job interview, but normally anxiety will fade once the event passes. If you experience anxiety for long enough, your brain may become “wired” for it, such that any potentially undesirable situation sounds a biological alarm. Chronic anxiety might cause you to constantly look out for potential threats when none exist.
EFT is a form of psychological acupressure, based on the same energy meridians used in traditional acupuncture for more than 5,000 years to treat physical and emotional ailments, but without the invasiveness of needles. You can think of EFT as a tool for “reprogramming” your circuitry, and it works on both realand imagined stressors. Recent research has shown that EFT significantly increases positive emotions, such as hope and enjoyment, and decreases negative emotional states, including anxiety. Following a 2012 review in the American Psychological Association’s journal Review of General Psychology, EFT is moving closer to meeting the criteria for an “evidence-based treatment.”
EFT is particularly powerful for treating stress and anxiety because it specifically targets your amygdala and hippocampus, which are the parts of your brain that help you decide whether or not something is a threat.12,13 EFT has also been shown to lower cortisol levels.14 While you can easily learn the basics of EFT on your own, if you have a serious anxiety disorder, I highly recommend that you consult a qualified EFT practitioner,15 as it typically takes years of training to develop the skill to tap on and relieve deep-seated, significant issues. That said, the more you tap, the more skilled you’ll become. EFT is a great tool to teach to your children to help them diffuse their everyday stresses, thus preventing them from festering or evolving into chronic anxiety.
The Benefits of Meditation
Meditation is another option that can help you combat anxiety in the long-term. One style of meditation is mindfulness—a directed-attention, waking state practice in which you keep bringing your attention back to the now. It’s a practice of single-tasking, originally developed for monks, who remain focused on the present moment in all activities. Besides improving your focus and boosting your mental cognition, mindfulness training helps relieve feelings of stress and anxiety.
If you think about it, nothing is uncertain in the NOW. You know exactly where you are and what you’re doing right this very moment, so by focusing on your direct experience in the present, uncertainty-driven anxiety can be reduced. With practice, you’ll likely lower your “intolerance of uncertainty” score.
It’s now becoming more well-known that meditation actually changes your brain.16 The increased calm and quiet you feel is not an imaginary effect. Neuroscientist Sara Lazar has used brain scans to look at the meditating brain, which shows that long-term meditators have an increased amount of gray matter in the insula and sensory regions. They also have more gray matter in the frontal cortex, an area associated with memory and executive decision making.
After just eight weeks, people who took part in a mindfulness meditation study, meditating 40 minutes per day, were able to shrink their amygdala—the part of your brain that governs your fight or flight response, and plays a significant role in anxiety, fear, and general stress. A smaller amygdala correlates to reduced stress and anxiety.